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Drowning off the coast of Libya

February 17, 2017 at 9:18 pm

Over the past two years, the channel crossing in the Mediterranean between Libya and Italy saw some of the highest death tolls of refugees dying in their attempt to cross the border into Europe. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, expressed this alarming toll in its 2015 report with the number of deaths reaching 3,771. The situation in 2016 was predicted to be a great deal worse, and as predicted the numbers are considered to have passed 5,000, meaning that on average 14 people died every day in their attempts to cross the border and head for Europe.

A report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) states that 67,600 migrants took the central Mediterranean route to Italy in the first half of 2015.

Italy received the highest number of asylum seekers in 2016, more than in any previous year. It is clear that Libya, in its post-conflict transitional period, has lost control over its coast following the 2011 revolution and the unrest that has ensued ever since. Human trafficking has become strife as a result.

Taking action

Operation Sophia” was launch to counter this growing problem. Established on 18 May 2015, it surfaced as a resulted of the ‘strong commitment to act’ following the mass drownings. Its efforts are focused on the identification, capture and disposal of vessels which are suspected of being used by smugglers. However, its objective is more concerned with disrupting smuggling routes than stopping migration flows and, as a result, it will reduce flows originating from the Libyan coast.

In a report on “Operation Sophia”, Senior Analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) Thierry Tardy says: “Twenty-one countries have participated in the first phase of the operation and Belgium, Germany, France, Spain and the United Kingdom have each committed a frigate for the second one.”

Libya joined the operation on 25 October 2016 sending 81 coastguard trainees and five supervisors on the Italian navy’s San Giorgio vessel which left from the port of Misrata. Libyan naval spokesman, Colonel Ayoub Qasim, said that the first phase which began in October 2016 was now in its final weeks, with 20 coastguards on the Greek island of Crete receiving formal training on dealing with illegal sea activities.

Qasim goes on to mention that “the first and second stages are separate, so the coastguards included in each phase do not have to meet; however, they will be meeting in the final practical phase.”

The third stage will include all trainees regardless of rank, with high ranking coastguards being given further training to become instructors.

Though Qasim has highlighted the trainees’ excellent results and performance, he has also criticised Italy’s reluctance to hand the operation back to Libya.

Attaining stability

Libya’s naval forces spokesman has previously criticised “Operation Sophia” and the countries involved in it, including Italy, saying they want to prolong the unrest in the country and continue smuggling resources such as oil and fuel. However, since his participation in the operation, his accusations have been brushed aside and forgotten.

The issue of stability in the region is clearly one which will take time and work for Libyans throughout the country. They are working towards formulating a new society, including attempts to create a new moral order paired with social policy to improve state running. It is clear that the state faces numerous problems in its search for stability and the unquestionable fact that the country is on the decline and resources are being widely exploited. What seemed to be a quick solution to a large problem has woven into a larger problem with minuscule stitches of hope. The daunting task for Libyan officials is to place their full and undivided attention in such operations in order to keep the country afloat. With particular emphasis on protocol and standardisation in their battle to subdue the migrant crisis.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.